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The Jungle

The Wanderer

On Dion.


Arno Hecht is a premier rock-and-roll sax man. He was a founding member of the Uptown Horns, and he has toured with James Brown, Chuck Berry, Tom Waits, and the Rolling Stones, among many others. He blew tenor on “Love Shack,” which hit No. 3 on the U.S. charts in 1989 for the B-52s. And he’s a very nice man. A native of Queens, New York, Hecht, seventy-one, is also the son of Holocaust survivors. He isn’t sure what happens to us after we die—if someone says they know for certain, I’d be wary—but he’s willing to believe it must be something

Dion DiMucci, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame icon with whom Hecht toured in 2022, says he knows. He not only believes that we’re reunited with those we knew on Earth but offered that comfort to Hecht during one of the horn player’s lowest moments. In January of 2009, Hecht’s fifteen-year-old daughter Ava suddenly died from bacterial meningitis, “sick one day and gone the next,” he said. On the first anniversary of Ava’s death, he was as distraught as the day it happened, perhaps more; hobbled by a wound, he said, “that never heals.”

“I was having a terrible day, sobbing, and I called Dion,” Hecht said. “Even though he’s a different religion, I know he’s sincere. I knew he would speak from the heart.” Hecht asked, “Dion, am I going to see my kid again?” To which Dion, who is best known for “The Wanderer,” one of the greatest tracks in the rock-and-roll canon, the young man whose life was spared in 1959 when he turned down a plane ride with Buddy Holly, replied: “I don’t think so, I know so.”

How the eighty-three-year-old teen idol thinks he knows is a long story, one that began with his baptism at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, four blocks from his family’s second-floor apartment on One Hundred Eighty-third Street in the Little Italy of his beloved Bronx. From there, he traveled the world through fame and fortune, nearly died from the fruits of that success and—by pursuing the mysteries of faith via reading, prayer, and meditation—made it back to the religion of his childhood. He told Hecht: “Keep talking to her, relationships never end. When your time comes you’re going to be with her for eternity. And that’s a long time.” In re-telling the story, Hecht said, “It’s not so much I believe that, but it was something I needed to hear at the time.”

On a visit to Rome a few years ago, a priest told Dion something he needed to hear. It was about his father, Pasquale “Pat” DiMucci, a sculptor of marionettes who died in 2003, a man the singer characterizes as self-centered in the extreme. “He was masterful in carving them and making them move with strings,” said Dion of his father, who, in the Old Country tradition of Gepetto, created people out of wood, making them dance and sing, fight and love. But when it came to gainful employment, he didn’t do much: “My father never had a real job, but could walk a block on his hands and climb trees like Tarzan.” He was, Dion added, “always somewhere else making puppets or down at the local gym lifting weights.”

And his only son, the oldest of three DiMucci siblings, which includes Dion’s sisters Joanie and Donna, all but despised him. Dion shrank from the constant arguments between Pat and his wife, Frances, a seamstress and hatmaker, who, the singer said, “held the family together.” Both Pat and Frances were first-generation Americans. Their fights were about Pat’s frequent absences and money, the lack of which would later figure into a decision that saved the singer’s life. “When they argued, I just went to my room and practiced guitar,” Dion said. “The more they argued, the better guitar player I became.”   

If Dion could tell Hecht without reservation that he would see his daughter again, would he not meet up with his difficult father on the other side as well? The prospect didn’t sound like paradise. The priest in Vatican City, Dion said, “was telling me I was going to see my father again. How do you see a guy that you couldn’t get along with down here? My old man was selfish, all he had was himself on his mind. How can I hang out with somebody like that?” But, Dion said, the priest replied, “Your father wasn’t open to all of God’s grace while he was here on Earth but he’s closer now to the Beatific Vision.” Reminding Dion of the log in his own eye, he added, “You’re not open to all of God’s grace either. By the time you meet your father again, your relationship will have moved forward.”

Despite more than a half-century of sobriety and decades of study, prayer, and listening for the voice of his God in meditation, Dion had never heard that before. In the Book of John, Christ speaks of life beyond the grave as his “father’s house,” one with “many rooms,” or, in certain translations, “many mansions.” I like the grandeur of the latter, the impossibility of the human mind to conjure a mansion behind every door. An unlikely yet plausible miracle akin to the one where Dion kicked heroin in 1968 and began a long, winding return to the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” The Church, he said, is “supernatural, that’s why I love it.” Dion maintains that while jogging in Florida in December of 1979—a little more than a decade after he stopped using drugs and alcohol and embraced Christ as his savior—he saw God. In his autobiography, he recounts the experience as a simple request: “I wanted to be closer to Jesus. So I did what I had learned to do back in ’68. On December 14, 1979, I asked for it.” 

“I was out jogging, like every morning,” he wrote. “As I went along, I prayed, ‘God, it would be nice to be closer to you.’ Suddenly I was flooded with white light. It was everywhere, inside me, outside me—everywhere. 

“Ahead of me, I saw a man with his arms outstretched. ‘I love you,’ he said. ‘Don’t you know that? I’m your friend. I laid down my life for you. I’m here for you now.’ That moment changed me every bit as much as the first time I dropped to my knees. Yet here’s something mysterious: the more I changed, the more I became myself. God was, and still is, finishing up his creation.” What was left behind was “some part of me,” he said, “that I no longer wanted.” 

Many years ago, I told that story to a fellow writer and Christian, George Minot of Iowa City. When I said that Dion was jogging when God appeared in a blaze of light, Minot replied, without irony, “Oh, the usual way.” 

How might a theater director—without the benefit of computer wizardry employed in film or a Pink Floyd light show—portray such an experience? The same way complicated people stay on the right side of a complicated world: by keeping it simple. In the spring of 2022, a play about Dion’s life, The Wanderer, was staged at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. In it, Joseph Barbara plays Father Joseph Pernicone, a popular priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The scene where Dion surrenders to the will of something greater than himself—“the conversion,” he said—shows the singer falling to his knees below a large stained glass window with the junkie’s prayer on his lips: “God help me . . .” (His old doo-wop friend from Harlem, Frankie Lymon of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” fame, had recently died of a heroin overdose in his grandmother’s bathroom at the age of twenty-five.) Rattled by his own close calls, Dion asked his father-in-law to pray for him and got this in response: “Pray for yourself, God loves to hear from strangers.”

Dion said he “got on my knees and said a prayer. I haven’t been the same since. You could call it my first conscious prayer.” Six months later he released “Abraham, Martin and John,” a topical folk ballad about the assassination of the American ideal—freedom for all; a million seller several times over that still brings a tear to listeners of a certain age. Dion was back, the road of spiritual discovery laid out before him. That path was something Father Pernicone had tried to interest him in decades before, asking the restless hotshot, “What would really make you happy?”

Dion’s answer is found in the lyrics of “King of the New York Streets”:

I broke hearts like window panes . . . a local gladiator . . . I stood tall from all this feeling . . . I bumped my head on heaven’s ceiling . . . shooting dice and double-dealing . . . each time I jumped behind the wheel of a pin-striped custom Oldsmobile . . . the guys would bow and the girls would squeal . . .

Only to find out that his answer was lacking in the extreme. The lesson conveyed, he said, is that “success and fulfillment are not the same thing.”

At the time of Father Pernicone’s death, he was an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York. He served Mount Carmel from 1944, when Dion was about five, through 1966, by which time the singer had long been famous (thirty-nine Top 40 hits), was horribly hooked on dope, and, like most street-corner vocalists of the late 1950s, relegated by the British Invasion to L7 status, which is to say, his style of music was considered “square.” But the truth is that Dion, who was one of the most popular recording artists of the 1950s, has never been a square, even if the new generation didn’t realize it as pompadours gave way to Beatle bangs.

“I’m a die-hard,” he said. “I’ve always kept rock and roll as my music because a lot of the guys my age flipped off into the Tony Bennetts and the Robert Goulets. Not the kid.”

Like Dion, Joseph Barbara is a practicing cradle Catholic, and he was born the year Dion got sober. He said that during rehearsals for The Wanderer, Dion didn’t exactly give notes for the show. “At this point in his life, Dion’s a philosopher,” he said. “Any notes he gives are through the way he looks at the world. We’ve talked about going to Mass, about faith. In this business you don’t have those conversations with many people.”

The conversation Dion had with Buddy Holly in February of 1959 on “the day the music died” was anything but philosophical. “I’m not going,” Dion told him. The decision was rooted in his parents’ money woes. At that time, a series of buses carrying some of music’s biggest stars—Holly and the Crickets, the Big Bopper, Richie Valens, and Dion—kept breaking down in the brutal cold of a Midwest winter. Holly’s drummer, Carl Bunch, had to leave the tour when his toes became frostbitten. Buddy Holly was the headliner and the boss, “a little older than us,” Dion said, “an old soul, he knew his stuff.” He decided to hire a plane to take the marquee names to the next show on the “Winter Dance Party” tour. The cost: thirty-six dollars per person—the exact amount Dion’s mother paid for rent each month back in the Bronx; money earned by working her fingers day and night with needle and thread. It wasn’t the amount that annoyed Dion. (He could well afford it, having scored a pair of top five hits in ’59.) But the juxtaposition of his own position with that of his mother didn’t sit well with him. “Are you kidding? I wasn’t going to spend that in one night.” The decision saved his life.

Dion had no problem, however, spending that much money and more on narcotics. Heroin anesthetized the once curious kid; booze and cocaine riled him up. Still, God intrigued him. He once told Cardinal Timothy Dolan that he was reading Thomas Aquinas as a kid. “I wanted to know who God was,” he said. But it was music—always music, “that moved me.” He absorbed every sound he could—from a fork banging the side of a bowl while his maternal grandfather whipped eggs for zabaglione to the voice of a cantor booming from a synagogue. “His delivery was so exotic and so haunting that it stopped me in my tracks. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before,” Dion said. “I stood there outside in the heat, soaking it in, wondering how I could do what that guy was doing.” In the Bronx, he encountered the city’s music everywhere: outside of Jewish shuls, Caruso on his parents’ radio, and created it anew on the street corner: “Black music filtered through an Italian neighborhood,” he said. “It comes out with attitude.”

And he was encouraged by a black guitarist on the stoop in the person of Willie Green, the superintendent of a nearby tenement who told Dion to “be yourself,” when he went to auditions. It was Green who taught Dion the rudiments of the blues through John Lee Hooker riffs and songs such as Sonny Boy Williamson’s 1955 hit “Don’t Start Me Talking.” It was a genre the spiritually awakened Dion would come to identify with the Old Testament. He said recently in an interview that “if you had to retitle the Psalms, the songs King David wrote, you’d call them the blues. It’s like the naked cry of the human heart longing to be in union with God.” For Dion, that longing has been satisfied for half a century, quenched again and again, day by day. “I don’t live my life on my terms anymore,” he said. “I just look up in the morning, ask for some guidance, say an ‘Our Father’ and go on my way.”

Rafael Alvarez is the author of Don’t Count Me Out: A Baltimore Dope Fiend’s Miraculous Recovery, published this year by Cornell University Press. He lives in Baltimore, the Premier See of the United States.

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Rafael Alvarez has published a dozen books—both fiction and nonfiction—all about Baltimore. In September, Cornell University Press released his biography of a violent junkie turned do-gooder called Don’t Count Me Out: A Baltimore Dope Fiend’s Miraculous Recovery. This essay appeared in the Assumption 2022 issue of The Lamp.